A photo taken by Lillian Spibey entitled: Cranleigh UVI Chemistry Practical-6121

On 29th December, Toby Helm wrote an article in The Observer claiming that exam reforms were putting private school pupils at an advantage:’ Exam reforms boost private pupils in race for universities.

Rather than repeat the well-rehearsed arguments about the lack of evidence about the relative difficulty of the examinations – this simply has not been tested – I hope this blog will give an insight into some of the decisions taken and being taken over examination reform and how at least some schools in the independent sector operate.

I took O levels in 1983 and A levels in 1985. I began teaching in 1991, preparing students for GCSE dual certificate language and literature which was tested by 100% coursework. I saw the change in the mid 90s to the reduction of coursework and introduction of exams and pre-release material.  I was just moving into senior management with the introduction of curriculum 2000 (AS/A2) and transitioning from Deputy Head to Headmaster with reforms to GCSEs in 2006 and consider myself still in the middle of Gove’s A level and GCSE reforms.

This goes to show how much tinkering reform schools have faced in quite a short period of time. Each and every time there is a reform, schools must adjust their practices, schemes of work, purchase new materials etc. It is costly, distracting and sucks energy into professional development targeted at exam syllabus preparation and away from developing learning and teaching and approaches to a fast changing pastoral landscape . It is deeply frustrating.

Unlike the maintained sector, the independent sector is at least able to make more choices about curriculum. And yes it is unfair. Whilst our colleagues’ decision making in the maintained sector is so often hamstrung by national policy, colleagues in the independent sector are free to take a long view and consider educational progression rather than be seen to make change in the short cycles of government and even shorter ones of education secretaries.

Thinking as an educator means first and foremost putting pupils’ needs first, taking account of individual school culture and intake and making decisions about which curriculum options will best prepare them for future destinations and the world in which they live. We will think through progression through stages, course content and also what we think is an educational priority. While successive governments seem to have no guiding sense of a purpose or philosophy of education, heads and governing bodies of schools need to be able to align decisions to their own purpose and situation.

In 2005-6, new specifications for GCSEs were coming on line. As Heads of Departments, especially in the sciences, began to look in detail at course content, it gradually became evident that a push towards broader, perhaps more accessible scientific literacy in GCSE would be a less effective preparation for A levels; though perhaps of genuine benefit to those students who were not going to pursue science as a career but would be better informed as a citizen. There were also concerns about everyone doing exactly the same practicals and hoop jumping models of assessment. IGCSEs in Maths and Sciences continued with more traditional approaches to content and assessment.

My new school was clearly anxious for guidance and I gave the same instruction to them as we had given at the school I was working. We were both 11-18 schools with over 95% going to universities and with a strong track record of students going on to study sciences. Historically nearly a half would take Maths A level. All Heads of Departments were asked to look in detail at the full range of qualifications and in particular at the course content and asked to recommend which curriculum would provide the best preparation for A level. The recommendation came back to me from the Academic Deputy that Maths, and the three science departments wanted to do IGCSE and all the other departments deemed that the GCSE continued to provide the right content and transition. I therefore made that recommendation to the governors and it was accepted.

At that point, as now, IGCSEs were not counted in performance league tables. Therefore schools who adopted IGCSEs would come right at the bottom. Fortunately, my new governing body also believed that we were most accountable to our children’s futures rather than a crude performance measure. Not all of the independent schools in the area made the same choice as they judged that their own pupils’ needs were met better by GCSEs.

What we discovered over the period was that our pupils found the transition to AS level science and Maths a smooth one and their final results were strong. The Maths and Further Maths results at AS and A2 in particular were exceptionally high. We were also informed by those pupils that went to Sixth Form College that they were in a stronger position sitting their first modules than those who had not done IGCSE science.

Fast forward to Gove’s reforms. Here, we were faced with a whole different ball game. A levels and GCSEs were going to be reformed almost at the same time. I use the word ‘almost’ deliberately. For the department in its questionable wisdom decided that both A level and GCSE subjects would be reformed in phases and at the same time grades and numbers would be phased too. At least in 2006 we had had longer sight of specifications-this time some subject specifications were still not finalised by OfQual and exam boards until they were about to be taught. This left schools and teachers trying to manage a whole suite of exam types and styles, some reformed, some not, different assessment objectives with limited exemplar materials to guide teaching.

Even if there was some merit in the reforms themselves, no educator would implement a change in this way with no sense of skills progression built in to the phasing.

Faced with the reforms, our leadership principle was the same as in 2006. What was best for our students? Practically, what curriculum best enabled them to move onto the next stage and simultaneously what specifications provided the best skills and knowledge progression from existing schemes of work? Therefore departments were free to choose IGCSEs or GCSEs, A level or Pre U. We had already decided for other reasons that the IB curriculum as not right for us.

What was particularly difficult this time was that clarity on specifications was limited and so it was hard for subject teachers to make fully informed decisions. What was clear, however, was that the GCSE content, especially in Maths and Science, was re-aligning itself with the scientific principles approach of the existing IGCSE courses. As we got to grips with A level changes, it was clear that IGCSEs were continuing to provide the required preparation.

Therefore, we made the decision that the most sensible way forward was to focus our energy on preparing for A level change and a complete re-shaping of the Sixth Form curriculum. With GCSE, our focus could be on developing our understanding of changing grade boundaries with the transition from 9-1.

Why would any Headteacher deliberately add further complexity if he or she did not have to when specifications were so unclear? Wouldn’t you wait until all GCSEs were reformed before making a move? If the existing exam was sufficient for needs, and you had the opportunity to tell your subject leads to keep a weather eye on the new specifications to see if they would fit our pupils’ needs better before transitioning, wouldn’t you take it? In a 13-18 school like mine, wouldn’t you then wait a year before making the move to ensure your Year 9 curriculum provided the right progression? Of course, you would. If the DfE had been allowed to manage the change effectively,  then all schools would have been in a such a position.

As for the EBacc argument, I am not even going to give credit to something which masquerades as a curriculum and was designed as a performance measure and has created a false divide between the creative arts and other subjects. Again, this whole argument seems to be about perceptions of difficulty and measures of performance rather than what is right educationally.

My daughter took Maths, Triple Science, English Language and Lit, RE, Latin, French, Music and Art for GCSE (and a mixture of IGCSEs and GCSE). She then took Maths Pre U, Biology, Chemistry and English A levels and is now at university. I think hers is a broad, creative and academic profile (with some shortage subjects in there too) but she has not got an EBacc, because the EBacc does not recognise arts subjects or RE,  and I really do not mind and not does she.

What is unfair is that I have the freedom not to mind. The greater unfairness is that I and all of my colleagues in the independent sector will continue to fight for the creative and performing arts with all their energy and breath, which means our students are likely to dominate creative industries which has traditionally been an area of strength for this country. Even if they do not enter those professions, the creative, problem-solving techniques they will learn will serve them well. Oh, and I also want my students to be fulfilled human beings and make choices that are right for them…

I have grown used to the constant political questioning of the independent sector’s right to exist. I have given up bleating about it. Though if every column inch and parliamentary question that was wasted on a boring repetition of similar variations on the same theme was instead devoted to ensuring that all children got a brilliant deal then perhaps a difference would be made. The maintained sector should receive the proper, sustained investment the next generation deserves and all Headteachers in all schools should be able to focus all their attention on making decisions that are right for their pupils. It won’t come true any time soon, so I think I will just carry on and do just that.

Anyway, the final judgement will be with the 2020 and 2021 A level results. If those taking GCSEs substantially outperform those taking IGCSEs, the argument that one is more rigorous and a better preparation for A levels will be won. My son, preparing for his GCSE and IGCSE rehearsal exams as I write, hates my hat so he would be happy for me to gorge.